Building Customer Champions in Cloud Software (Hint: It’s Not Easy)

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The term “customer champion” is thrown around a lot in my work. What does it actually mean?

There’s a common misconception that a “champion” is simply a customer who is happy to advocate for a company. And sure, that’s part of it. What restaurant owner doesn’t love it when they see positive Yelp! reviews roll in – or a flurry of positive G2 Crowd reviews if you’re in cloud software? While positive reviews are important, however, they also might just mean that a customer had one good experience with a company. A good review does not a loyal customer make.

What separates a happy customer from a loyal champion is something a little less tangible. It’s not just someone who likes a product and will advocate for the brand once, but rather someone who willing to spend their own time and resources to advocate. The biggest difference? They’re willing to stake their own reputation on it.

Customer champions are something for which every software company strives. Is there any cloud vendor worth their salt that doesn’t put customer champions front and center in their marketing materials? Those voices matter incredibly in creating validation, but also in showcasing trust and belief in a company, particularly in the early stages when a company likely doesn’t have as much weight.

So how do you help happy customers become loyal champions? It’s not easy and it takes time. It requires companies to focus on the long game, understand what those individuals care about, and create touchpoints that allow them to build a deep connection with their brand.

Disclaimer: All of what I’m about to share is predicated on companies having one great product. It’s impossible to have a base of customers, much less champions, if you don’t have this. In the process of trying to grow a company and build a brand, and get many things right in the process, too many companies fail to get this right. If you haven’t done that yet, the rest of this doesn’t apply.

Invite Them In

People love an inside look. Whether it’s going into the kitchen to meet the chef, a backstage pass to a concert, or a few minutes with a CEO, the element of exclusivity and extra attention is always enticing and significant in building an affinity for a brand or company.

In software, I’ve found that offering a variety of touchpoints proves effective, both in offering that “behind the scenes” look, but also inviting different types of customers into the fold.

A few I’ve seen, from other companies and my own, include:

– Customer Advisory Boards: Sometimes called CABs, brands will bring together some of their biggest, most successful, or most innovative customers to share roadmaps and elicit feedback. It’s a win-win – existing customers feel loved and new customers see credibility. The best ones I’ve been a part of or have led instituted a rotational approach, whereby each member only serves for set period of time (say 18-24 months) to garner fresh insights and different points of view.

– Beta Testing: Similarly, many companies invite customers to trial new releases or features they’re thinking about adding into products – or new offerings entirely. Not only is it one of the most important components in product development (ensuring an excellent user experience without any glitches), but it also helps customers put their “stamp of approval” on products, making them feel like part of the process.

– Social Campaigns: I love to see companies give their full customer base a voice in a more inclusive way. Whether that’s sending out an email campaign to elicit feedback on what features are missing or a social campaign that asks a wide range of questions, listening early and often are major success factors to acquisition and retention.

Of course, all of that sharing means nothing if companies don’t act on the feedback they receive. Whether it’s adjustments to the product, customer communication, or rollout timing, companies must actually do something with those insights for the customer to feel valued and that the time they spent was worthwhile.

Act on Feedback

Inviting customers into the fold offers a company the opportunity to hear from and listen to customers – and then act on that feedback. That’s the most important part of all of this. A few ways I’ve seen companies do this successfully include:

– Social Product Development: At Sage Intacct, we encourage customers to submit “ideas” through our community and then enable them to vote on those ideas. The ideas with the most points are added to our roadmap. It’s rewarding for customers to see an idea they submitted get released into the product – and for them to also have a say on which features we prioritize.

-Communication of Internal Process Improvements: One of the most compelling ways I’ve seen companies act is to actually improve internal processes and then share those improvements with customers. If a customer takes the time to share a process breakdown or poor experience with you, then you can bet that they will be pleased to see you make necessary improvements, not only for their own sake, but that of their fellow customers as well.

Create a Movement

There are number of consumer brands that have of inspired movements and brand loyalty such as Apple, Nike, Southwest Airlines, Lululemon and IKEA. In the world of cloud software companies, the list is much shorter, but Salesforce.com is always at the top. That’s for good reason. Marc Benioff spent the early days of Salesforce not just building a great product, but creating a new way of business – and building a legion of supporters incredibly quickly.

The original product revolutionized the way sales organizations managed their business and removed reliance on IT. It made people look good at work. It got people home to their families earlier. It made them believe that a “salesforce automation application” actually could make them more productive and their lives easier.

But it was much more than a good product that increased efficiency and had a different delivery model. Benioff also introduced the “No Software” rallying cry, which spoke to all the frustrations customers experienced in the past. It went beyond logic to the more primal part of the brain – the limbic section responsible for our behavior, decision-making, and feelings. (Logic, after all, doesn’t inspire action.) Salesforce.com stood for something very different and created an emotional connection with customers Some touted Salesforce.com credentials on LinkedIn profiles and others even got tattoos.

It was the first enterprise brand to create a movement that people wanted to be part of – and in doing so, created a league of champions from the very beginning.

I’ve seen dozens of companies try to take pages from the Salesforce.com playbook – and most have failed. Among the few that succeeded, ranging in size from very large to mid-sized and fast growing include, Athenahealth, Gainsight, Hubspot, ServiceNow, Slack and Zoom. Each of these companies has done more than drive happy successful customers, they have inspired a movement and loyal champions in each of their respective categories. They provide a consistent high level of service and strive to make customer heroes at the center of everything they do.

Once you’ve done ll this, the next step is distinguishing between happy customers and loyal champions. In my next piece for CustomerThink, I’ll share my advice for doing just that.

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